ANTHOLOGY FILM ARCHIVES, which failed to include a single film by Shirley Clarke when it assembled its Essential Cinema collection in 1970, has programmed a five-evening retrospective of her film and video work. A pioneering American artist, Clarke began her career as a dancer and choreographer. When she focused her energies on filmmaking in the early 1950s, she brought a dancer’s awareness of how movement defines space, an appreciation of performance, and an enthusiasm for collaborative work. Her early short films were fairly conventional, but her first feature, The Connection (1962), put her on the maverick map. For her adaptation of Jack Gelber’s play of the same name—about a bunch of junkies hanging out in a cruddy downtown loft waiting for their dealer to show up—Clarke kept most of the cast of the original Living Theatre production intact, and they brought to the screen a sense of heroin time that I suspect was the real reason the film got into trouble with the censors. (The official explanation for the ban was that Clarke refused to bleep out the word shit, spoken numerous times.)
Clarke’s groundbreaking films The Cool World (1964) and Portrait of Jason (1967) are New York time capsules that seem as radical today as when they appeared. The first fiction film to be shot entirely on location in Harlem, The Cool World was based on a novel by Warren Miller adapted for the screen by Clarke’s frequent collaborator Carl Lee. It stars Hampton Clanton as an African-American teenager who, heartbreakingly, gets caught up in a culture of gangs and guns. The film is as much a document of street life in Harlem just before Black Power as it is an early landmark in the history of American neo-realism. Portrait of Jason, Clarke’s (successful) attempt to outdo Warhol at his own game, is a hundred-minute portrait of Jason Holliday, a gay African-American hustler who harbors a fantasy of becoming a cabaret drag performer. Clarke filmed Holliday over the course of a single night as he desperately tried to take advantage of the camera’s presence to live out his dreams of stardom. About Portrait of Jason, Ingmar Bergman remarked, “The most fascinating film I’ve ever seen.”
A retrospective of the films of Shirley Clarke will be on view April 22–28 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.